Chapter 1: Walt Whitman and Industrial
During his lifetime, Walt Whitman was a cult figure, a national oddity, a scandal. From the 1870s until his death in 1892, Whitman’s admirers sedulously portrayed him as the Good Grey Poet, the American Sage, the authentic national voice, but the custodians of American literary taste were not persuaded by this campaigning. Although editors of leading reviews occasionally gave space to Whitman’s verse in their pages and were sometimes generous in their praise of him, he remained to the end a sort of raffish distant cousin of the family of American letters who might be nervously received at the kitchen entrance but under no circumstances was to be shown to the parlor. 1 Whitman was a man of genius, John Jay Chapman admitted a few years after the poet’s death, but a wayward one, an inspired mountebank, a tramp. Only Englishmen could possibly believe that Walt the tramp was a fit representative of sensible, conventional, get‑ahead American democracy. 2
In the twenty years following
Whitman’s death all of this changed. Something approaching general acceptance
was granted Whitman with the publication of Bliss Perry’s study of his life and
work in 1906, but it was the young literary radicals who claimed him as their
own. The little magazines of the 1910s—Poetry,
the Little Review, the Masses, the Seven Arts—were mainly concerned with furthering the radical
literary and social movements of their own day and did not often look back over
their shoulders to the American past, but when they did they invariably saw
Walt Whitman standing there alone. 3 Whitman was
first of all a liberating example, a possession, a souce, “the first original,”
as Aifred Kreymborg said, “the one true democratic and cosmopolitan on American
soil.” The pre-War rebellion, otherwise so heavily indebted to European thought
and European examples, took heart from this. “The roots the country grew out
of,” Kreymborg later recalled of the pre-War years, “were still being
How, exactly? As a literary progenitor? Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, affirmed Whitman as the source of “free verse,” but this was disputed. 6 Ezra Pound acknowledged in “A Pact” that Whitman had broken the wood from which the new poets carved, but Pound went to Europe for carving lessons, and most young poets of the decade followed him there. To those most deeply moved by Leaves of Grass, Whitman was more than an “influence;” a first encounter with the book was often a rite of passage. Whitman's lonely bohemianism had once been an embarrassment to those who admired him but adhered to the proprieties. The rebels of the 1910’s were bohemians themselves and saw in Whitman a fellow spirit. To a generation committed to desublimating sexual impulses, Whitman was a priapic bard, a singer of the body's rights. 7 To others, Whitman represented American democracy—not its actuality, but its mystical core, its liberating potential. Whitman the democrat, bohemian, and poet of sexual love (only carping spirits seemed to notice his homosexuality) was an almost unavoidable symbol of freedom and spontaneity around 1912. He was a disheveled and benign saint, everybody’s “favorite older American writer,” as Henry F. May has said. 8
But Whitman’s symbolic importance was greater than this enumeration of attributes suggests. To Van Wyck Brooks, James Oppenheim, and Waldo Frank of the Seven Arts, to Robert Henri, the leader of the Ash Can school of painters who chanted Whitman to his art classes, Whitman was the prototype of the modern. 9 Brooks was particularly intense about this. Whitman, he argued, was the one American writer of the nineteenth century in whom the two ordinarily discordant impulses of the American character, the idealistic and the materialistic, had been fused. Each in the absence of the other led to futility. The idealistic impulse on its own was thin, arid, irrelevant. The materialistic impulse, left to itself, was quickly brutalized. Let the two only merge, as they had in Whitman, and American culture would be made whole for the first time. Add only “discipline” to that healthy equipoise that the poet had possessed and there was simply no knowing what prodigies American culture might perform. Brooks’ chapter on Whitman in America’s Coming‑of‑Age, the central chapter of the most important essay on American culture written in that decade, was titled “The Precipitant’’ 10 The renovation of American life was to proceed from Leaves of Grass.
then, was the source of Whitman’s appeal. To John Jay Chapman, who admitted the
appeal, “health” meant the poet himself, who fancied his body was electric, who
knew there was no sweeter fat than stuck to his own bones. But to Brooks and
his colleagues it meant more, the poet’s “emotional attitude,” his delight in
everything around him: the Wall Street gold exchange, Broadway crowds,
illustrated newspapers, open fields, the
We know that Whitman did not always regard the American future with utter equanimity. For all of his cheerleading in behalf of industrialism he was made uneasy by it, and the moralist in him sometimes spoke harshly of the future that the nation was creating. His early poem “Respondez!” (which he dropped permanently from Leaves of Grass in 1881) is a prophetic, angry and turbulent poem in which America is indicted as a harlot of infidelity.11 In 1888, Horace Traubel fished out a fragment from Whitman’s papers containing these lines: “Go on, my dear Americans ... open all your valves and let her go—going, whirl with the rest—you will soon get under such momentum you can’t stop if you would.” 12 In Democratic Vistas, Whitman was mainly concerned with bad literature and declining private manners and public morals, but there is that remarkable passage toward the end in which he speaks of “the long series of tendencies, shapings, which few are strong enough to resist, and which now seem, with steam‑engine speed, to be everywhere turning out the generations of humanity like uniform iron castings.” Whitman goes on to warn that if these tendencies are not confronted by “at least an equally subtle and tremendous force‑infusion for purposes of spiritualization,” then modern civilization “with all its improvements” must meet with a destiny equivalent “to that of the fabled damned.” 13
Here, the “material” and the “spiritual” are not presented as phases in an evolutionary process, the one leading to the next‑‑Whitman’s usual practice‑‑, but as forces in stern conflict. The steam engine symbolizes not the human conquest of distance, but the inhuman force of the industrial process. The machine has usurped spirit’s role as the shaper of history, and history as a consequence is seen not as divine evolution but as a kind of mad assembly‑line.
Nothing like this idea occurs in
Whitman’s verse, however, and very rarely in his prose. In the poems one finds
only celebrations of locomotives, spinning machines, implements, works of
engineering and “improvements” of all kinds. But as often as Whitman celebrated
motion and magnitude, his social vision remained curiously static. While continents
are spanned and oceans leaped in his verse, his personally experienced world
remains to the end the world of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the
If there was naivete in this, surely there was also calculation, a poet’s cunning, an instinctive determination not to see too much. His main purpose was not to warn darkly, but to give to his fellow citizens an imperishable vision of what an urban, industrial democracy might be. If there was guile in this, it was successful guile. In reading Whitman one is almost compelled to be made aware not of what his vision carefully excludes but of all that it takes in. He seems to accept everything, the evil and sordid along with the good. In that wonderful catalog of incidents, Part 15 of “Song of Myself,” he points to opium dens and lunatic asylums, and is moved to compassion at the sight of a prostitute giving back the curses of men who jeer at her. What, one might think, could be more true to life than this? Was there another poet or novelist of the time who included a tenth as much of American reality in his work?
But much is missing from this and similar catalogs No awareness is registered of spreading tenement slums, labor conflicts, or even, except by mild implication, class divisions. 14 There is no knowledge exhibited, that is to say, of the social forces behind the myriad characteristic incidents that Whitman so sharply records, no recognition of those impersonal shapings and tendencies whose existence he would briefly acknowledge in Democratic Vistas. His view is that of a reporter who knows the town from top to bottom, a man with a quick and sympathetic eye for the telling cameo, the lively vignette. Reading Part 15 of “Song of Myself” is like scanning a newspaper, a once‑and‑for‑all American special edition packed with fine feature stories. Significance inheres not in the isolated incident, the separate life revealed, but in the rich inclusiveness of it all, and the truth attested to is the truth of splendid national variety.
Variety is nowhere more dazzlingly displayed than in the city street, especially Broadway when viewed from the driver’s seat of an omnibus. “Always something novel or inspiriting;” says Whitman, “yet mostly to me the hurrying and vast amplitude of those never‑ending human currents.” 15 More than a spectacle to be enjoyed, the urban crowd is for Whitman visible confirmation that each man and woman is a part of the sublime whole. Look, he says, at these “seething multitudes around us, of which we are inseparable parts!” 16 Each member of the crowd is ideally as Whitman describes himself in “Song of Myself”. “Both in and out of the game, watching and wondering at it,” at once spectator at and participant in a pageant of democracy. And while each brings into the crowd his own peculiar badges of origin and condition, his “uniform,” the institutions and walks of life which these uniforms signify are temporarily abolished in the merging. 17 Thus the crowd serves as an image of democracy in its urban setting, a proof of diversity amidst unity. Whitman’s two polar but mutually necessary principles of democracy, “personalism” and the “en-masse,” melt together in the crowd and become one.
A skeptic might observe of this that if “en masse” is a principle given life in the case of, say, a public assembly or a processional, it becomes an empty abstraction when applied to the crowd, just as “inseparability” is a patent fiction, inasmuch as no collective purpose brings the crowd together. We move through or with the crowd, we do not participate in it. We are furtive spectators and unrecognized individuals. There is no game to be in or out of. We are, in short, anonymous.
Here is one reason why Whitman may seem to us so psychologically remote, so “innocent.” Anonymity is for us the urban condition, and a city crowd is by twentieth century definition a lonely crowd. Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, and Saul Bellow’s Tommy Wilhelm are all pitted against “the vast skepticism and apathy of life.” as Dreiser expressed it, and Whitman’s sort of affirmation in the face of that blank indifference to individual fate is likely to seem merely fatuous. 18
Whitman knew anonymity. In Democratic Vistas he makes a distinction
between the crowd as the clear-eyed realist sees it and the crowd as it is
seen—as it should be seen—by its poet. A few pages into the essay Whitman says
he derives a “continued exaltation and absolute fulfilment” from wandering
night and day among the crowds of
From the point of view of the
realist, the grandeur of the crowd is only a superficial effect. He sees
through it, to the stubborn and sullen particularity of each member. But his
vision is deficient. To appreciate the central spirit of the crowd one must
contemplate the idea of it. The “idea of this mass of men” implies as many
constituent “ideas” as there are men, and the idea of each man includes not
only what he is at the moment but the potentialities inherent in his being.
Poor Carlyle, old Whitman mused in
If the crowd represents to Whitman the ideal of humanity unencumbered of the weight of institutions and delimiting custom, caught up in a ritual promenade of recognition and self‑discovery, then work too is at its best a ritual: an engagement of the body with resistant matter, a testing of personal limits, a joyous shaping of things. Whitman is never more fascinated or more sure of his striking powers of observation than when he is describing men at work. Part 3 of “Song of the Broad-Axe” describes the various branches of the trade he knew best, carpentry. Here he describes the erection of a house:
The hoist-up of beams, the push of them in their places, laying them regular,
Setting the studs by their tenons in the mortises according as they were prepared,
The blows of mallets and hammers, the attitudes of the men, their curv’d limbs,
Bending, standing, astride the beams, driving in pins, holding on by posts and braces....
Then spar-makers hewing out the shape of a mast:
The brisk short crackle of the steel driven slantingly into the pine,
The butter-color’d chips flying off in great flakes and slivers,
The limber motion of brawny young arms and hips in easy constumes ...
Whitman, watching these carpenters or a line of masons slapping their trowels on a brick wall, experiences an almost proprietary glow, like a ballet impresario watching his company from the wings. Work is deeply pleasurable in his poetry. The inertia and recalcitrance of materials—the heft of a stevedore’s sack, the thickness of an unshaped house beam—provide just enough resistance to call forth satisfying effort. That performed, materials yield to men.
Work at its best also gives the
workman command over space; not just room enough to move in, but a dramatic
setting. Hence, Whitman admires most the men who work at heights: a mason on a
building scaffold, a sailor high in a schooner’s rigging. When height is joined
to motion Whitman’s imagination is completely satisfied. Ferry captains,
omnibus drivers, locomotive engineers, “our modern
Steam power meant primarily steam locomotion to him, an engine-assisted intensification of speed. The machine meant release. For the rest, the idea of the machine and the idea of work hardly make acquaintance in Whitman’s poems and essays. Except for those occupations which grant the workman control over an engine, work in Whitman’s scheme is a pre-industrial activity.
Whitman did not wholly ignore industrial occupations. As early as “Song of Myself,” he speaks of the spinning girl “who retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,” and of the “clean-hair’d Yankee girl” who “works with her sewing-machine or in the factory or mill.” But these are women, and the imagery—one girl dancing to the wheel’s music, the other demurely neat in appearance—lends to nascent industrialism a naive charm redolent of the Lowell Offering. Later, Whitman employs different techniques. In “A Song for Occupations,” he describes industrial work as pure process:
The blast-furnace and the puddling-furnaces, the loup-lump at the bottom of the melt at last, the rolling-mill, the stumpy bars of pig-iron, the strong clean-shaped T-rail for railroads...
Or he simply lists machines:
Stave-machines, planing machines, reaping machines, ploughing machines, thrashing-machines, steam-wagons...
loved machines, and saw the outlines of a new visual aesthetic emerging from
industrial realities‑those “shapes” he conjures into existence in “Song
of the Broad‑Axe”: “Shapes of factories, arsenals, foundries ... vast
frame‑works, girders, arches...” He could stand any time, he confessed,
transfixed by the half-hour watching the “proud, crashing, ten‑cylinder
presses” in the basements of the
This refusal to connect machine
technology to changes in the nature of work is most clearly seen in “Song of
the Exposition,” a paean to progress composed for an industrial fair in
We plan even now to raise, beyond them all,
Thy great cathedral sacred industry, no tomb,
A keep for life for practical invention.
The palace of industry,. a
modern wonder “history’s seven outstripping,” and its lesser fellows devoted to
the arts, music, the sciences, and learning, are pictured as “High rising tier
on tier with glass and iron facades.” No conventional architectural styles
here, no bas‑reliefs, no masonry, just glass and iron “in cheerfulest
hues;” modern materials appropriate to modern monuments: vertical
When we enter the palace of industry, however, matters become more ambiguous. Whitman’s purpose is threefold. First, he would de‑mystify the industrial process by revealing its fundamental principles to be simple and graspable, thus hastening the acclimation of the common man to the new environment of machines. Second, he would “exalt the present and real” by demonstrating in this microcosm of the world of machines something of the new environment’s excitement and beauty. Third, he would “teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade.” By making accessible to the visitor the sight of all trades being practiced under the sun, Whitman believes that the final lesson of the exhibit will be driven home. That lesson is that each American man and woman of whatever station in life shall find fulfilment in performing the necessary tasks of society, through “manual work for each and all.” Each must “see to it that he really do something.” All will learn to plant and to build, to use the hammer and the saw,
To invent a little, something ingenious, to aid the washing, cooking, cleaning,
And hold it no disgrace to take a hand at them themselves.
Paradoxically, through industrial education and the exhibiting of the newest machines, Whitman would restore to life the all‑round Yankee mechanic, the jack-of-all-trades, who had flourished during his youth. His conception of the role of invention is, in 1871, just short of being anachronistic. He does not see it as a force that must abolish the very concept of work that he eulogizes. It is to be an auxiliary to handicrafts and domestic pursuits, simply one among many activities to which free-spirited workingmen will occasionally turn in their daily rounds. Technical genius is to be found throughout the population at large; it neither creates elites nor implies a system.
Whitman, then, found the model for the civilization of the future in the republic of his youth, and never reconciled his admiration for “practical improvements” to a vision of the good life that above all valued simplicity, comradeship, and freedom. One finds throughout Whitman’s poetry and prose two opposed clusters of ideas, on one side technical genius, material elaboration, progress, and splendid cities, and on the other, freedom from institutional restraints, spiritual efflorescence, and repose. He could quite nicely harmonize the two in his own being, as sensation: idling by the ferry rail and hasting with the current. But in moving from sensation to ideas, from Walt Whitman to American history, he encountered seemingly insuperable difficulties.
In the main, Whitman grouped these contraries under two rubrics, “matter” and “spirit.” He attempted to reconcile them in several ways. Sometimes he saw them as complementary opposites, male and female, and sometimes, Hegel‑like, as thesis and antithesis. occasionally he would boldly assert the identity of the two. “Thrive cities,” he said in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers,/ Expand, being that which none else is perhaps more spiritual . . . ”And in Democractic Vistas he announced, “We stand, live, move, in the huge flow of our age’s materialism—in its spirituality.” 23
His usual method of reconciling
material progress and spiritual transcendence was to conceive of the first as a
period of preparation for the second, as in “Passage to
Such a scenario reduces the
significance of the American continent to that of a railroad track and a series
of way‑stations along the route to Oriental wisdom. “Passage to India”
thus provides no answer to the question of how America herself is to ascend
from the material to the spiritual stage of her history in which she will prove
“different from others, more expansive, more rich and free,” by establishing a
“sublime and Religious Democracy.” 24 In
Whitman’s “Song of the Redwood‑Tree”
represents an attempt to bring about on American ground the same result he had
achieved on a cosmic scale in “Passage to
But all basis for the belief that man will absorb nature in the act of conquering it is dashed when Whitman, at the tree’s death, proceeds to speak the moral of the tale. Men are not merely the chosen successors to the felled trees, but “deities of the modern” before which everything must yield. Nature is forgotten when Whitman envisions the future that must be. In nature’s place we have the standard catalog of achievements: “Populous cities, the latest inventions, the steamers on the rivers, the railroads, with many a thrifty farm, with machinery...” 25
Whitman here might almost be
taken for one of those conventional late nineteenth century spokesmen for
progress who regarded the romantic view of nature as sentimental nonsense. The
slackness of his rhetoric perhaps betrays his unease. He was, for once, “facing
facts”: to celebrate
But his usual
way was to reach out with both hands, seemingly oblivious to conflict, taking
“gain” in one hand and “savageness” in the other. It was not enough, he said in
“A Song of Joys,” to have “this globe or a certain time,/ I will have thousands
of globes and all time.” There spoke the Whitman who would confound time,
development and historical necessity, Whitman the creator of that
There was ambiguity first of all in Whitman’s essential persona, Adam as buoyant treader of city payments. As with his created self, so with his city: the uncorrupted Indian word “Mannahatta” came with successive chants to suggest both the aboriginal past and the steel-towered future. In part, the strangely “pastoral” quality that Irving Howe has noted of Whitman’s city is a consequence of the poet’s attitude. 26 When Whitman gazes upon the urban scene (and “gaze” is a favorite Whitman word, suggesting mild and loving contemplation, a kind of ocular reverie), he is almost always lounging somewhere, as placidly at his ease as if he were stretched out in a meadow, a spear of grass in his mouth. Mannahatta is pastoral in another and deeper sense. Men are not pressed down by necessity there, and not divided sharply into orders. They work neither to assure their own survival nor to make the wheels of commerce hum, but for the satisfaction of it. As David Weimer has said—speaking here of the imagery in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—Whitman’s city is “bathed in an amazing poignance.” 27
As everyone knows, Ezra Pound’s relationship to Whitman was a vexed one: 28
I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough...
Mentally I am a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a collar and a dress shirt (though at times inimical to both) ...
The “Yawp” is respected from
Whitman is a hard nutt. The leaves of Grass is the book. It is almost impossible to read it without swearing at the author almost continuously.
No American poetry is of any use for the palette. Whitman is the best of it, but he never pretended to have reached the goal.
And so it went, from 1909 until 1917, when Pound’s friend T.S. Eliot, perhaps at Pound’s instigation, determined to put a stop to all those silly rumors once and for all:
Whitman is not an influence; there is not a trace of him anywhere; Whitman and Mr.Pound are antipodean to each other. 29
But they were not. Pound may have detested what he doubtless regarded as the cosmical claptrap of much of Whitman’s verse, but the affinities between the two men ran deep. It is most discernible in the prose that they wrote. Both were given to writing manifestos full of wit, defiance, and didacticism. Both assumed mantles of authority as a matter of unquestionable right from the very beginning.
In 1913, Pound wrote a book on the future of American culture called Patria Mia. His publisher lost the manuscript, however, and did not find it and publish the book until 1950. 30 Patria Mia (a title Whitman would have loved) resembles no other book in American literature so much as Whitman’s Democratic Vistas. Both writers express contempt for what passes for literature among the polite classes of the. nation; both single out a cringing conformity to English standards as the cause of this state of affairs; both in effect re-define “culture,” and see it developing not under official sanction—the respectable reviews and the universities—but “out there,” in Whitman’s view among the healthy masses, in Pound’s, as a concomitant of and complement to the amassing of wealth in get-ahead New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Thereafter the two diverge. In Whitman’s scheme, the supreme poets of the future are to celebrate and justify American democracy; theirs will be a bardic office. In Pound’s scheme poets have no such responsibilities: let them get on with writing the best verse that is in them, and the masses be damned. Consequently their versions of the future differ in kind (although hardly in grandeur)—Whitman’s a democracy to redeem the world, Pound’s an American Risorgimento, an awakening that will, as he wrote to Harriet Monroe, “make the Italian Renaissance look like a tempest in a teapot!” 31
But it is not in their expectations for American literature that Pound and Whitman most resemble one another. Their kinship is most evident in the welcome both throw out to tall buildings, crowded cities, and all the great American facts. If anything, Pound is more exhilarated by these things than Whitman. When Pound wrote Patria Mia he had been in London for several years, and as has happened so often to artists in exile, his residence in London served to remind him that there were after all certain things that Americans did better than other peoples. As the book’s title suggests, Patria Mia is not only a book of national affirmation but an act of national discovery.
Take, for example, the
With the advance of steel
construction it has become possible to build in the proportions of the
campanile something large enough to serve as an office building. This tower is
some 700 odd feet high and dominates
And so Pound’s peroration soars, ending with a declaration which for sheer Yankee brag exceeds anything to be found in Whitman:
And as for
If Patria Mia is in many respects a sort of updated Democratic Vistas, it differs
from Whitman’s essay in some important ways. As has been noted, Whitman’s
vistas were democratic, while Pound gave not a fig for democracy: New Yorkers
simply made splendid Roman plebes. Whitman included the world of work and
machinery in his scheme and Pound did not. Whitman proclaimed nature and the
artificial to be in harmony with one another; Pound, who had long since put
Another manifestation of the Whitmanesque in that period was The Soil, a little “Magazine of the Arts” that appeared in December, 1916, lived through five feverish issues, and died in July, 1917. The American “arts” that The Soil took as its domain included everything contemporary and therefore, by its definition, vital, in the American scene. American art, The Soil asserted, did not exist in “the art world,” but in the American environment itself, out of which it was growing “naturally, healthfully, beautifully.” 34
The Soil was the
creation of Robert J. Coady, a forty-year-old art dealer who had sojourned in
Paris during the first decade of the century and had there known Gertrude and
Leo Stein, Max Weber, and Henri Rousseau. When Coady returned to
In painting, poetry, and architecture,
the past was The Soil’s enemy, a
point made succinctly in a sort of subliminal legend scattered through its
pages, a dismissive reference to Edwin Markham’s “The Man With the Hoe:” “It’s
not the man with the hoe, it’s the man with the steam shovel.” 36 Despite his promotion of the European moderns in
his gallery, Coady in his guise as editor was an almost truculent cultural
nativist in the Whitman tradition, and regarded everything European as by
definition “old.” “The
Like the more influential Seven Arts, whose life-course coincided almost exactly with The Soil’s own, Coady’s journal announced the dawning of an American renaissance. Both enterprises were ultimately derived from Whitman. 38 The Seven Arts departed from the poet’s reforming side, from the idealistic Whitman who called upon spirit to confront fact. The Soil claimed Whitman the natural man who delighted in the world of fact. “There is an American Art,” Coady declared in the opening pages of the first issue, “Young, robust, energetic, naive, immature, daring, and big spirited. Active in every conceivable field.” And then followed a catalog of modern wonders attesting to the divinity of the American average, a list of the editor’s “likes” behind the apparent randomness of which there was much method: 39
The first issue of The Soil, like Coady’s catalog, conveyed a sense of wonder at the democratic amplitude and richness of American life. There was an essay on the dime novel as literature, an appreciation of the art of Bert Williams, the black vaudevillian, and in the second issue photographs of the Great Northern Railway’s locomotive “3000” and of the “Matt M. Shay,” the “Largest Engine in the world.” These locomotives appeared alongside reproductions of paintings by Picasso and Cezanne. “The shapes arise,” Whitman had said in “Song of the Broad-Axe,” and here were the new American shapes: a Sellers Ten Ton Swinging Jib Crane, a forging press, a Chambersburg Double Frame Steam Hammer, all presented in a “Moving Sculpture Series.” 39a
Coady contrasted these examples
of the art of the real with the sterile products of the beaux arts tradition.
Opposite the steam hammer he placed a photograph of the
differed sharply in its machine enthusiasm from superficially similar varieties
Neither the automobile nor the airplane appeared in The Soil’s pages, and speed was not celebrated in them. Admiration for such spectacularly individualistic machines might have implied an elitist view of the machine age. The Soil celebrated the common man, not supermen. As Coady’s colleague Robert Alden Sanborn wrote in a tribute to The Soil in 1922, the Chambersburg Steam Hammer represented “in its operation the welded power of thousands of workmen, and it follows that the design by which this miracle is achieved should be admirable for something more than its utility. It becomes one of the symbols of a national spirit that flourishes in a soil capable of nourishing the world.” 42 The manner in which The Soil celebrated the machine was curiously old-fashioned. Even the objects of its veneration, locomotives and various stationary industrial machines, were, so to speak, Whitman’s machines.
But The Soil was stunningly new in its openness to what is now called “popular culture” (there was no equivalent term in 1916), in its insistence that vaudeville, movies, the comic strip, window display, the rodeo and baseball were in some sense “art.” It conveyed the feeling on every page of a sensibility and fast-talking style formed within the urban and industrial present, a New Yorker’s style (there is no other way of putting it) that reminds one of Coady’s younger contemporary, Henry Miller, the self-proclaimed patriot of the Fourteenth Ward, Brooklyn, who saw a “harmony of irrelevant facts” in the city streets and said that what was not in the open street was “false, derived, that is to say literature.” 43 There was a similar strain of anti-highbrow pugnacity in Coady which prevented him from considering some of the more disturbing implications of the facts he celebrated. But for all its limitations, or, really, because of them, The Soil was the last manifestation of unselfconscious Whitmanism, the last successful attempt to fuse together Whitman’s populist mysticism and his enthusiasm for machines and big buildings. Thereafter, “affirmations” of the American present and future were vitiated by self‑doubt and ambiguity, and very quickly, in about a decade, all traces of Whitman had disappeared.
There is considerable ambiguity,
if no self-doubt, in the film that Charles Sheeler, the photographer-painter,
made in collaboration with the photographer Paul Strand in 1920, a camera
Nevertheless, the comparison
demanded by the film between Whitman’s
Stripped of its quotations from
Whitman, Mannahatta’s affinities
to other films of the twenties like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and King Vidor’s The
Crowd become evident. The same
All of this is to say that it
was almost impossible in the
A similar nostalgia for lost innocence afflicted Hart Crane when he came to write The Bridge, his epic of the modern in emulation of Whitman and in rebuke to the negativism and despair of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. “The form of my poem,” Crane wrote to Waldo Frank in 1926, “rises out of a past that so overwhelms the present with its worth and vision that I’m at a loss to explain my delusion that there exist any real links between that past and a future destiny worthy of it.” 46 Crane failed to see that much of the worth and vision of that past had been created by Whitman, that it was an imaginary past from which such things as draft riots, Tweedism, race-hate and ghastly poverty had been eliminated.
Whereas Whitman had seen the
city through a romantic haze, Crane saw it as a hell, a bedlam, a place of
loneliness and sad voyeurism. That huge flow of materialism and spiritual
aspiration to which Whitman had pointed were in Crane’s poem split asunder; the
two now stood in opposition to one another, the city symbolizing the one, the
aloof bridge the other. Crane required the fatherly presence of Whitman, his
Meistersinger and Great Navigator, to get through the “prison crypt/ Of
canyoned traffic” to that now almost unimaginable future, “that span of
consciousness thou’st named/ The Open Road.” Finally, the bridge itself,
If the 1920s possessed a successor to Whitman the lover of urban grandeur, an artist who used the forms of his age to project a vision of an even more splendid future, he was not Crane but the architectural illustrator Hugh Ferriss. Ferriss, an architectural graduate who had worked in the studio of Cass Gilbert when Gilbert’s Woolworth Tower was going up, was by the twenties a specialist at rendering the new generation of “stripped” skyscrapers—the Shelton Hotel, the American Radiator Building, and others. In 1929 these works of homage were published along with others depicting a skyscraper city of the future under the title The Metropolis of Tomorrow. 48 So powerful was the impact of Ferriss’s drawings that Sheldon Cheney was able to write in 1930 that Ferriss perhaps deserved “more credit than any architect since. [Louis] Sullivan for stirring the imaginations of designers, students, and public.” 49
The images which Ferriss’s drawings may conjure up in the viewer’s mind range from ziggurats and canyon walls, through Piranesi’s etchings of gigantic prisons and Boulée’s monstrous. “utopian” eighteenth century renderings of amphitheaters and astronomical observatories to, perhaps, the extraterrestrial fantasy cities of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comic strip of the 1930’s. 50 But none of these comparisons directs us to the source of these drawings’ disturbing power. Perhaps it is that we are invited, even commanded, to identify with the majesty displayed here. In Ferriss’s works we almost always see the city of the future at night and from above; light from unseen searchlights far below and from the headlights of rivers of cars throws the stepped back, windowless forms of the massive buildings into relief against the black sky. Placing us above it all as he does, the artist invites us to feel solemn awe; we are likely to feel instead a vertiginous queasiness.
Just as Whitman in “Song of the Exposition” had prophesied a series of skyscrapers devoted to the various branches of the arts and learning, so Ferriss envisioned the center of his metropolis divided into three giant zones, the Business Zone, the Art Zone, and the Science zone, representing respectively man’s “senses,” “feelings,” and “thoughts,” each zone to be dominated by a stupendous thirteen‑hundred foot tower, fully eight square city blocks in girth at its base. 51 Here was a monumental New Era vision of sublime harmony achieved under capitalism. In Ferriss’s stunning drawings, the aspirations and troubled dreams of the years of the boom are revealed as they are nowhere else. These skyscrapers, not Hart Crane’s beloved bridge, seem the appropriate realization of Whitman’s celebrations of materialism, mighty industry, and success.
And yet Whitman would have been
appalled by Ferriss’s cold utopia, a place from which all traces of saving
vulgarity had been abolished, a capitalist paradise without advertising signs.
Where were the workingmen here, where the perambulating crowds, where the
loving comrades? Whitman’s towers were to be cheerful, and the pride with which
he evoked them had the wit to be amused by itself. Similarly, Pound’s
admiration for the Metropolitan Life tower was without reverence. only with
What it all amounted to was that by the 1920’s it was no longer possible to emulate Whitman, and that however often an artist might resort to draughts from Walt’s magic elixer, the old poet’s ecstatic vision would be denied him. New ways of seeing the environment were required, new myths, new strategies. one might, in the manner of Hugh Ferriss, simply identify with the aspirations of Walter Chrysler and John J. Raskob, and call their creations sublime. One might, as Van Wyck Brooks and others would do, condemn the new scene entire and mourn the memory of Whitman’s Mannahatta. One might become a sort of urban guerilla, planting poetic bombs about the city with grim zest, as E.E. Cummings would do. But whatever the strategy one might adopt, Whitman’s city could not again be conjured into being: it was back there in the unrecapturable past, and, for those who had ever been stirred by it, all the more poignant for that.